Red Bird; one of Oklahoma’s original all-black towns

52 Days of Paleo, Day 18

I had a pretty good Paleo day (see below for details), but the mission today was to see, in person, the mythical (in our family) town of Red Bird and connect Keli to some of her family’s history.

We’re practical enough to know that connecting with one branch down one line of one of our family trees is not a definitive exploration of what it means to be who we are, but I enjoyed what I was able to contribute to the exercise.

We started at the nearest library, in a town called Coweta. I hoped to learn a little more about the town’s history, if possible. The librarian wasn’t sure what she had available when we asked for anything that might tell us about Red Bird, but she pulled a memoir written by a local rancher, a listing of all the cemeteries in the region, and a book called the Wagner County History.

A thick reference guide, the book was produced in 1980. It was full of short articles about local social groups, county and city governments, churches, schools, and the like. Each listing was comprised of at least a paragraph. Some were pages long. I assume these articles were supplied or produced by the guides’ staff. They represent a snapshot of the country at the time, and a record of the highlights of history to that point as the people who wrote it saw it.

Also included in the book were sections about towns, including several columns of text on Red Bird. The town, it turns out, was formed by black men with a vision, and a business plan.

Constructed on a section of land owned by a Creek Indian native named Fus Chata, which means Red Bird, the land was first settled at the end of the 1800s by two families; the Barbers and the Ruffins. More families joined them and a community formed. E.L. Barber founded a church and became Justice of the Peace and eventually Mayor, coalescing the community. The railroad came through the land, a post office was opened, and a development company formed (spearheaded by Barber) promoting investment in what would be one of thirty all-black towns in Oklahoma. This was all before Oklahoma became a state (the town was officially in Indian Territory).

The Red Bird Investment company promised land and opportunity to free blacks escaping the deeply-racist south. It’s sales agents, who traveled the South promoting the town, drew 600 people from sixteen different states to the grand opening (August 10, 1907).

Over its history, the town has prospered, faltered, then stabilized. Today, Red Bird is home to something like 200 people. Over the course of its history, Red Bird built and ran its own small schools and properly incorporated in 1963 to get loans to add services the town needed. There are many descendants of the towns founding (or early settler families) still living in Red Bird today.

The town as we found it is a checkerboard of disintegrating white/gray roads lined with dense forest. The streets are made up with one part sweet, small and well-maintained homes, one part abandoned and overgrown buildings, and one part mobile homes on debris-strewn lots.

We walked the local cemetery, looking for familiar family names. We spotted those of a line of my wife’s cousins, but none from her direct ancestors.

At the center of town are a couple of cinder block buildings that make up the town's infrastructure. One building is city hall, a one-room, two-window structure with steel mesh grates over the windows. The other is half post-box cluster (the post office was decommissioned some time ago and mail service is now dropped to the old post office building but delivered to individual mailboxes), and part utility office. That’s where we met Ms. Wilma Mosley. I guess her age somewhere between 75 and 90. When my wife mentioned her family history, Ms. Mosley knew of it. And had stories of Keli’s Grandmother and Keli’s Grandmother’s sisters. She even had a story about a character Keli met when she visited Red Bird a few times as a child; a precocious adult that courted her grandmother and who drank and made enough of a fool of his harmless self that two women a generation apart both had stories that connected them.

There is a metal sign mounted just in front of what I assume is an abandoned court of jailhouse (it has two rooms, one with thick concrete walls and a steel door). It told us more about the history of the town. It speaks of how freed black men came together in farming communities when fertile land became available in the Indian Territories. Towns formed around these communities. The movement for all-black towns developed as a way for these communities to self-govern, but Jim Crow laws suppressed the rights of African-Americans to vote and stifled these communities’ ability to flourish. Many, as did Red Bird, stagnated. The communities and towns formed during this era still exist, and signs like the one in Red Bird are the last reminders of this amazing history.

What I found next made the trip worthwhile.

Breakfast: Turkey slices, apple, banana, coffee sweetened with raw honey.

Lunch: Meatloaf, twice-baked potatoes, corn and a sliced muffin at a diner.

Dinner: Gluten-free cauliflower flatbread with ground beef, sweet pickle, and cheese. French fries. A homemade snicker-doodle cookie.

Snacks: None.

Exercise: None.

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